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A better way to test for HIV: Translate it into DNA

There are easy ways to test for HIV, and there are reliable ways, but easy and reliable? That's hard to come by — but perhaps not for long.

There are a number of easy ways to test for HIV, and there are a number of reliable ways, but easy and reliable? That's hard to come by — but perhaps not for long, thanks to a new test developed by Stanford chemists.

The test, also developed by researchers at Alameda County Public Health Laboratory, is described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The sources of the HIV testing tradeoff are complicated, but it boils down to two facts. First, it's a lot easier to find HIV or, more commonly, HIV antibodies — signs of the immune system's response to the virus — in blood than in other fluids such as saliva. Second, blood tests require needles, and most people aren't crazy about needles.

The tradeoff is felt especially hard by public health agencies like Alameda County's, where officials are trying to screen large numbers of teenagers to track and prevent the spread of HIV. Ideally, they'd like a saliva-based test, which teens are more likely to volunteer for than a blood test, but they need one that's more reliable than what's currently available.

Enter researcher Jason Tsai, PhD, shown at right above, with former graduate student Peter Robinson, PhD; chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, and Bertozzi's lab members, who figured out a way to amplify the HIV signal in saliva — by translating that signal into DNA, which is easy to amplify using techniques that have been around for decades.

Initial results are promising, as the Stanford news release explains:

...the test correctly diagnosed 22 people who took part in an Alameda County screening effort, each of whom had tested positive for HIV using other methods. Importantly the test did not falsely detect HIV in the 22 additional HIV-negative participants.

That could mean more speedy diagnoses, hopefully preventing some new infections. As Bertozzi points out, "Every day that goes by that a person’s behavior is not modified based on their HIV status is a day that they could be infecting other people, especially for young people."

Previously: Ultra-sensitive test for cancers & HIV developed by Stanford chemists, Researchers consider how to cost-effectively reduce HIV risk for intravenous drug users and "Unprecedented" approach for attempting to create an HIV vaccine
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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